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Intro to Card Sorting

Author by Christos Konstantakis

Having a neat and organized navigation system is essential to perfecting user experience. A great research method that is used today within industry is Card Sorting. This method can help us make sense of what the customer expects to see when interacting with the product. This is beneficial because you can change the product based on qualitative data, not hunches. 

Definition: Card sorting is a process where participants organize topics on cards and into categories that make sense to them. The most common use cases for card sorting are apps, websites, and menu categories. 

Card sorting is useful to: 

  • Create an effective naming system to form your product navigation. 

  • Help the product owner learn and adapt to the ever-changing user base. 

  • Discover how unique customers understand different concepts or ideas. 

What are the different types of card sorting? 

Card sorting is split into two main methods:  

  • Open Card Sort: Participants create their own categories and move cards in groups that make the most sense to them. 

  • Closed Card Sort: Participants sort cards into pre-existing categories. 

Open card sort 

Imagine you are creating a web product for a client who is a pet grooming/care service. The business offers 5 different services that the customers can choose from. How would you organize these services into categories for ease of navigation? The business may categorize tooth brushing, washing, and nail clipping under grooming where the user may not agree. In this case an open card sort could be used to develop group names that are more reflective of a positive customer experience.  

Tip: Open card sorting is best to use when you are creating a new product and/or do not have pre-determined categories. 

The graphic below provides an example of what an open card sort technique will look like. The participant has control over naming and adding to the categories. The participant also has control in organizing the cards into each category. 




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Closed Card sort 

You have a media consumption product and you are working on iterating on the current navigation system. The customer has eight genres, but it wants to reduce it to four for quicker user navigation. In this case, a closed card sort method would be implemented. Keep in mind, the customer does not have control over creating their own categories. You must effectivley create four separate genres to test with the participants. The four selected genres are: Action, thriller, comedy, and romance.  

Tip: Closed Card Sorting is best to use when you are updating your content organization for the changing customer base. 

The graphic below provides an example of closed card sorting, in which the participant has less control. The participant can drag the cards into each pre-existing category. However they are not able to select or create new categories. 

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So... How do we choose the correct card sort?  

Selecting the right card sort depends on what information is needed from the user. Answering some key questions can help to illuminate what the best methodology to use is. Consider asking questions, such as: 



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The questions help you gain insight on which card sorting method is best for your product. If the questions cannot be answered, it is best to start with an open card sort before moving on to a closed card sort. 

To summarize: 

  • When conducting card sorting, participants are tasked to organize topics on cards or sticky notes, and into categories that the clients may expect information to be displayed. 

  • Card sorting is split into two main categories: closed card sorting and open card sorting. 

  • The most common use cases for card sorting are menu categories. 

  • The data allows the business to obtain what the participants want to see from the product as a baseline. 

  • Card sorting creates an efficient way to test if the layout of the product is well thought out. 

The next time you set out to change your product’s user experience, consider card sorting. Not only will it help users easily navigate your product, but it will also increase recurring traffic.